Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

Is helping overrated?

Rev. Margaret Marcuson

September 28, 2018

In most church circles, helping others is highly valued. We don’t always do it as well as we would like, but we think it’s the right thing to do. Of course, good Christian people want to help others! Whether in our congregations or beyond our walls, isn’t that what ministry is all about?

However, helping may be overrated. Why? The wrong kind of helping, in fact, doesn’t help. It can keep people from finding their own way in life. And while it can feel good in the moment for those of us doing the helping, it may not be so good for us, either.

How family dynamics produce “helpers”

In the language of family systems theory, there’s a balance between what is called overfunctioning and what is called underfunctioning. Overfunctioners are those who take on too much responsibility, and underfunctioners don’t take enough responsibility. The more the overfunctioner helps, gives and takes responsibility, the less the underfunctioner does. It’s a reciprocal relationship. This dynamic can carry on for years, and it’s not good for anyone. Overfunctioners can burn out, and underfunctioners never reach their full capacity.

Here’s what happens in ministry: Those of us who are overfunctioners become anxious when we see someone struggling, and we step in to handle our anxiety as much as to serve them. We learn these patterns early in life, typically in the families in which we grow up. We wind up in an overly responsible position in the family, and then that’s where we feel most comfortable in other settings, too.

How do we know when to help?

I’m not saying, of course, that you should never lend a helping hand to anyone. What I am saying is to consider what’s in everyone’s best interests before you step in. We Helpful Helens or Harolds often assume we know best for everyone. I try to ask, “What’s in the long-term best interests of everyone?” Is it to help, or is it to allow someone to figure it out for themselves? This applies to church life, parenting, marriage and all relationships. It’s important not to step in to help just because of feeling anxious. Seeing other people struggle is anxiety-producing, but it can be an opportunity for people to learn and grow.


It’s important not to step in to help just because of feeling anxious. Seeing other people struggle is anxiety-producing, but it can be an opportunity for people to learn and grow.

It can be difficult to step back from helping. I had times as a pastor when I had to say no, because I genuinely was unable to provide the asked-for help or because I decided it wasn’t the best thing to do. I continue to feel guilty when I don’t offer help. But as I tell myself and the pastors I coach: “Just because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing in saying no.” It’s false, compulsive guilt.

Doesn’t the Bible teach me to help all the time?

“What about the Good Samaritan?” you may ask. What about those who passed by on the other side? Well, as with all lives, discernment is needed. In a crisis, there’s a time to step in. Other times, fear or selfishness may cause us to ignore people who truly need our help.

Consider this: When an opportunity to help comes your way, take a moment, an hour or a day, depending on how big the commitment is. Don’t just jump. Stop, and prayerfully ask God, “Is this mine to do?” In my experience, I get a clear sense of when to say yes and when to say no. This short-circuits our automatic, reactive tendency to help whether it’s needed or not.

When I was a pastor, I redefined my work from “helping” to “helping people grow.” You do different things when you are helping people grow than when you are simply helping them.

Here are questions to ask when you feel tempted to step in with help:

  • Are they asking for help? (I find when I’m anxious, I can step in when people haven’t even asked me.)
  • If they are asking for help, is this help the best thing I can do right now?
  • What will be best for everyone (this individual/group, myself and the wider group/community) in the long-term?

Through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources, the Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without burning out.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

Want the latest from The Christian Citizen?
Subscribe to Christian Citizen Weekly

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This